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Authors: Karl Taro Greenfeld

The Subprimes

BOOK: The Subprimes
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DEDICATION

For the 99%

EPIGRAPH

“Thou shalt support the repeal of all taxation.”

“Thou shalt oppose all personal and corporate income taxation, including capital gains taxes, all criminal and civil sanctions against tax evasion should be terminated immediately.”

“Thou shalt support repeal of all laws which impede the ability of any person to find employment, such as minimum wage laws and child labor laws.”

“Thou shalt condemn compulsory education laws . . . and call for the immediate repeal of such laws. Government ownership, operation, regulation and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.”

“Thou shalt favor the repeal of the fraudulent, bankrupt, and oppressive Social Security system.”

“Thou shalt support the abolition of the Department of Energy.”

“Thou shalt support the abolition of the government Postal Service.”

“Thou shalt support the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency.”

“Thou shalt support the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration.”

“Thou shalt call for the repeal of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.”

“Thou shalt call for the abolition of the Consumer Protection Agency.”

“Thou shalt oppose all government welfare, relief projects, and ‘aid to the poor' programs.”

—
THE NEW COMMANDMENTS OF THE FREEDOM PRAIRIE CHURCH (AN EXCERPT)

When a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

—
JOHN STEINBECK, THE GRAPES OF WRATH

CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1

T
WO DOZEN BODIES LAY IN
duct-tape-patched nylon sleeping bags atop cardboard folded for padding against the pebbled, cigarette-butt-and-bottle-cap-littered earth. Empties were discarded around the sleepers, duffels and packs were torn open, contents spread in the dark, waiting to be gathered at first light. Animal tracks wound around the packs and the bedding; a stray dog had been sniffing around last night. Above was the roar of automobiles on a crumbling freeway, so dilapidated and overdue for resurfacing you could glimpse through cracks the sooty undercarriage of cars passing overhead; and higher, on reinforced pylons straddling the old road, was the elevated skyway, one of the new toll roads that whisked the wealthy from mansions to airports. Smog rose in crowning layers and somewhere up there, presumably, was blue—had to be—though most days you saw only brown smudge.

The horizontal figures were mostly men, but among them, blanket or nylon rising in shorter breaths, were a few women and children, bundled against the night chill. This was the best sleep, in the minutes before dawn, after the fears about food and money and shelter that had prolonged wakefulness among the adults had finally been worn through and even those most prone to worry could drop off into blessed nod.

The sleepers stirred, the auto roar and exhaust awakening them. First a woman in sweats stood up from her blankets, rubbed her eyes, and at the same time reached for a pot, sniffing at it to make sure it was clean. She felt around in her pack and rooted out a half-dozen square chunks of scavenged one-by-four, a squirt can of gasoline, and two cans of refried beans. The blocks were arranged into a small pyramid and beneath them she built a mound of balled-up flyers into which she shot a stream of gasoline and then sat back, struck a match, and tossed it into the combustible pile. The flame shot up, subsided, was fanned by the woman into a steady burn; then the woman set upon the fire an iron grate, once part of a barbecue grill. The cans of beans clugged as she shook them into the pot.

She had graying hair. She could be anywhere between thirty-five and fifty; it was hard to tell because, like so many subprimes, she had stopped dying her hair. Her hands moved in a steady blur—there was an easy efficiency to her actions; she did not need to think about each step of preparing this meal—she flipped open a lock-blade jackknife and chopped onions, cilantro, and half a tomato she found in her pack.

The beans came to a boil. She shook the narrow figure next to her awake and then reached over him to rouse a slightly larger form. The sleepers resisted until she shoved them again and then both sat up and rubbed their eyes, the larger of the two, a teenage girl, stretching.

“I'm hungry,” said the smaller, a boy. “We have any eggs?”

The woman stirred the beans and chopped up vegetables. “Beans.”

“We have any tortillas?”

“Finished them last night.”

“Aw,” the boy said, looking down at his bowl of beans.

Near them, a man in a sleeping bag sat up. “Don't give your mom a hard time. That's good food.”

The boy nodded and took a mouthful.

Now other women were waking, smelling the fire, glancing over at the family to see if they had finished cooking.

“You mind?” said a Latino woman who wore jeans and a bra. She held in front of her a pot with dried oatmeal in it.

The first woman shrugged. “All yours. But do my family the courtesy of putting on a shirt.”

The Latino woman looked down at herself. “Oh my God. I'm sorry.”

The husband, drinking from a jug of water, watched the Latina as she walked back to her pack. The woman threw a stick at him. “You dog!”

He laughed. “Bailey, honey, I was just making sure she listened to you.”

The whole encampment was rousing. Mothers and fathers trying to figure out how to get their children fed, how to divide scarce water for drinking, cooking, and washing up, and then escorting the youngest to a pit dug behind a pylon so they could make their toilets.

They'd been here three days. A rough spot, but convenient to day labor for the men, and close to an open water tap behind a gas station. Bailey had developed an internal clock for how long a Ryanville might last before they were run off. That first afternoon they had set off from their Riverside house, sleeping bags,
clothes, and cookware piled into the rear cargo area and atop the roof of the creaking, bald-tired Ford Flex, duct-taped rear panel windows and six dashboard service lights pegged CHECK, she had not known what they were riding into. Her husband, Jeb, said they should head east, get out of California and into Nevada, Colorado, Texas, states where there were rumors about suburbs with abandoned houses stretching to the horizon and anti-immigration legislation had driven out the Latinos. “We can work picking fruit,” he reasoned. “They still have to get the crop in.”

Bailey did not want to remove the kids from school, but what choice did they have? They were broke, had nowhere to live, and it was impossible to imagine a scenario in which they could make it in California. They had to go east. But first they needed a stake, so they headed into Los Angeles, to Mayweather, near Vernon, where every day five thousand men stood in quiet rows beneath the Vernon Gate Towers and marched forward according to orders broadcast from a loudspeaker—“Farmer John needs twenty-four to swab out rendering vats”; “Freezinhot needs sixty to load the freezer”—and Jeb took his place among the men every morning shortly after dawn.

Now he dressed quickly, pulling on jeans, work boots, old Carhartts. In a way they were lucky, thought Bailey. Her husband had always been strong enough for backwork. Her own job, routing claims forms for a dental insurance company, had long since become redundant through a combination of better software and cheaper labor. Before that, she was an elementary school teacher, until the state stripped the unions of collective bargaining rights in the Right to Learn Act, subcontracting public school education to for-profit corporations. She still missed teaching, but that was strictly an hourly-wage temp job now, for those lucky enough to get hired.

That left Jeb to work for whatever the bosses offered under the National Right to Work Act—the minimum wage having been abolished—enough to keep them fed and the car gassed but not enough for a roof or to save much more than coins. The kids were out of school all day, playing with other subprime offspring in whatever Ryanville they parked in for the night. Her daughter, Vanessa, was already being noticed by the boys and young men hanging around the camp; Bailey could tell she was enjoying the attention.

But Bailey was busy lugging buckets of water to do as much laundry as she could, mending the kids' clothes, and trying to maintain basic hygiene; it pained her to look at them, out of school, going feral with the other kids.

Jeb walked down the hill, slipped through the gap in the fence to the road at the base of the culvert beneath the underpass and down the street to their parked car. He would make the rounds of as many work spots as he could afford on two gallons of gas and be back before nightfall. Bailey had fifteen dollars left; she would have liked to buy Jeb some steak or a piece of chicken but knew she could only buy bulk canned beans.

She pushed the money into her jeans. “Vanessa, Tom, come here. Take that bucket and before you go wandering off go down to the Mobile and fetch some water.”

THIS SCENE WAS REPEATED IN
every previously uninhabited nook, elbow, spit, lot, and underpass throughout the foreclosed and abandoned suburbs and exurbs and trailer parks of America, now squatted by the millions who had walked out on mortgages, been foreclosed upon, or simply could no longer afford a fixed address. They were all lumped together by the media into a category called “subprimes,” a less descriptive label, perhaps,
than “homeless,” but one that in this era of raw, rapacious capitalism gave all the information anyone needed: the credit rating of the men, women, and children who inhabited these Ryanvilles was subprime. Their credit rating made them unemployable; they were fugitives from warrants for collection and summonses to appear. Their immediate goal was to avoid imprisonment in Halliburton-, Bechtel-, or Pepper Industries–operated Credit Rehabilitation Centers.

To stay out of these debtors' prisons, the subprimes kept moving. The percentage of the population that lived in Ryanvilles was impossible to calculate, but in certain parts of certain cities it seemed as if one in every five folks was living rough, in tents or parked cars, under a freeway or next to a river. The American economy had shifted from being consumer driven to energy exporting—Saudi Arabia, only with bacon on every menu. Big oil didn't need the American consumer, so why should American industry pay enough for Americans to keep on consuming? Denied government assistance, the poor had gone past being poor. The recent American Empowerment Act cut benefits to a onetime $250 in vouchers to fast-food outlets. They were cut off from health insurance. And they were denied any federal housing subsidy—the National Housing Freedom Bill had changed that program to a onetime $500 voucher for any of several major hotel chains. Millions had taken to the road, living in the last valuable possession any of them had, their SUVs, as they traveled across the country looking for work and a squat for the night.

THERE WAS, AMONG THE SUBPRIMES
beneath the highway, a woman of medium height with black hair, copper skin, and blue eyes. She had full, deeply grooved lips that made the men grin
and the other women distrust her, but she was cautious, keeping her distance from the married men and making a point of helping the women with kids or cooking. She kept a motorcycle just inside the fence, and during the afternoons she tinkered with it, spending the better part of three days removing an intake valve cover and replacing the valves. It was dirty work, the grease streaking her forehead, and in the evening, when the men were coming home, one or two thought about lending the pretty girl a hand.

Sargam had been going from Ryanville to Ryanville with nothing but a small pry-bar for protection, only she was different from the families in that she had been wandering her whole life, ever since she left her third foster home at puberty. She had never known her parents, never even known her race, which had been listed on Child Protective Services forms as “other/mixed.” She was often confused for African American, sometimes for Indian, occasionally for Native American, once in a while Indonesian or Sri Lankan. She was all of those things, so bewildering a mélange that she gave up trying to parse the sixteenths of this or the eighths of that. She said she was everything, all of it, people and countries and ideas and dreams all rolled into one so that she could dream bigger and talk louder and fight harder than all the rest. “What this all means? All of the me in me?” she would say. “It means don't fuck with me, me, me, and me.”

The few days they had been in camp, Bailey and Jeb, and the other families, accepted Sargam as one of their own, inviting her in the evenings to share their fire and pleased that she was so quick to help when a pot needed cleaning or a blanket airing. She spoke in stolid, unaccented English, and her narrow, appraising eyes projected experience yet not judgment. They were usually wary of singles, men or women, but the families found Sargam's presence reassuring. If a smart, capable single woman was here,
well, hell, then anyone could end up in a Ryanville. It wasn't their fault they were here.

Most of the camp would gather around a fire, the kids huddled in their own shadowy circles, daring one another and telling stories, the men sitting up smoking. There were families on each flattening in the rise, dug into terraces, stretching up to the bases of the pylons to the roadway. Sixty or so faces glowing orange in the early night.

Sargam shook her head. She told them she had seen thousands, tens of thousands, living like this. Families spread up and down the California coast, east into Nevada, south to Arizona, all living rough and makeshift, out of cars or in encampments.

“There's something wrong in the world,” Sargam said, “when good people, honest people, can't sleep under a roof or share a meal around a table.”

Bailey nodded. “You said it, sister.”

“Something needs to change,” Sargam said. “What happened to this country? We have people living in mansions, flying private jets, building their own sanctuary islands in the ocean, and decent families don't have a place to live? What happened?”

There were a few murmurs of assent from the surrounding campfires, as well as a few grunts.

“Don't get all political,” said one man. “Keep your politics to yourself.”

“It doesn't bother you that because of your credit you can't get a real job?” Sargam said.

“You a politician?” another man said. “This is the greatest country in the world, or it was until the politicians and media ruined it, made it hard for business.”

“Hard for business?” Sargam said. “Do you really think it's hard for business in America? How much are you getting an hour? Five dollars? Five fifty?”

There were murmurs of assent from around the hillside.

“You're barely making enough to eat on and pay for the gas to get you to the next day's work.”

“Lady, we're working all day, we don't need to hear you going on about socialism when we want to get some rest.”

Bailey took Sargam's hand. “Darlin', complaining don't feed our kids.”

Sargam nodded. “I know. It's just . . . there's something broken here, been broken for a while now, and whenever I see kids out of school and men working all day for thirty dollars, or a woman like you who has to sleep out in the open, I wonder why it is we all just sit here and take it.”

“Lady, give it a rest, will ya.”

Sargam sighed. She'd heard the same thing everywhere. Her ideas weren't complicated. It was a simple sense that something was wrong, the system was unfair, that lives were being crushed and no one was saying anything about it because there was no money to be made by saying anything about it. She was not an educated woman. She just felt she had to speak her mind. Not like so many subprimes who seemed too intimidated or frightened or defeated to wonder about their circumstances or how they might make things right.

BOOK: The Subprimes
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